Adam Yauch's legacy - the rappers from the suburbs

The Beastie Boys paved the way for today’s Jewish hip hoppers who don’t have to come from the ghetto to be ‘for real’

By Paul Lester, May 10, 2012
Clockwise from top: Drake, Asher Roth, Mac Miller and Shlomo

Clockwise from top: Drake, Asher Roth, Mac Miller and Shlomo

So, farewell then Adam Yauch. Dead of cancer at 47. Yauch, and his fellow Beastie Boys - Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz - comprised one of the biggest rap groups ever. Along with mogul Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam - label home of the Beasties, Run DMC, Jay-Z and Kanye West - they put Jews at the forefront of the genre in its early days.

Where Yauch and co led, others have followed and Jewish rappers are a strong presence in the contemporary hip hop scene. They vary wildly, from Matisyahu to Drake, the mixed-race, Toronto-born son of a Jewish educator whose albums have sold in their millions, making him one of America's biggest stars, hip hop or otherwise. Then there are the dazzling beatboxing skills of High Wycombe's Simon "Shlomo" Khan, the noir electronica of experimental Californian Yoni Wolf, who operates as WHY?, Israel's Kobi Shimoni (alias Subliminal), who has achieved cult respect in the US, and Canadian electro-rapper Gonzales aka Jason Charles Beck.

So why are so many Jews drawn to rap?

"Oppression breeds self-expression, and no one would argue that Jews haven't been as oppressed as other races," says Tor Hyams alias Master Tav, frontman for Chutzpah, who use comedy - and samples/beats - to make serious points about cultural difference, from guilt-tripping mothers to self-loathing Jews. Hyams argues that there is something about the Jewish condition that makes hip hop a natural mode for its expression.

"Jews are very neurotic; hip hop is a good way to get out that neurosis," he says. "It's like therapy. And it seeps through genetics into the culture."

‘I don’t think your credibility should be based on whether you've been shot or not'

Broadly speaking, Jewish hip hoppers today are divided between those who, like Drake, are only incidentally Jewish (although he does, on the opening track of his latest album Take Care, rap about performing at a barmitzvah and is featured in his latest video having a "re-barmitzvah"), and those who telegraph their religion in their raps and look (such as Matisyahu, who appears to be a character from the parodic imagination of Sacha Baron Cohen).

Many of them ally the rapid-fire delivery of a borscht-belt stand-up to hip hop beats, in the tradition of satirical rappers past such as 2 Live Jews and 50 Shekel. Those on a comical trip include Hoodie Allen who gained credibility by working with Jamie Smith of Mercury Prize-winners The xx, while still hanging on to the humour indicated by his Woody Allen-punning alias.

"It's just a catchy little nickname that I put a play on words to, but yes, clearly I am a New Yorker and I am Jewish, so it is all tongue-in-cheek," says the artist born Steven Markovitz, who is currently in the US charts at number 10 with his album All American, the follow-up to 2010's Bagels and Beats.

Other Jewish rappers are just as proudly "out", but have greater religious intent. DeScribe (alter ego of the hasidic Schneur Hasofer), Eden Pearlstein aka Eprhyme, Y-Love (known to his folks as Yitz Jordan) and Moses Michael Levi (real name: Shyne) all rap the gospel according to the Torah and generally use hip hop, often the conduit for homicidal and misogynistic invective, to spread positive messages.

"I grew up an Israelite, like Jacob and all of our forefathers," declares Shyne, a black Jew who lives in Israel. "Whenever I have been through difficulties, I have never taken drugs. No, the only thing that has enabled me to escape trouble is the divine force. I go straight to the boss and talk to Ha'shem. That's why I'm in Israel."

Midway between the playful rappers and the "meaningful" ones are Iron Solomon and Rabbi Darkside. Solomon, whose real name is Aaron Merkin, is an unassuming, bespectacled New Yorker who just happens to be a world champion freestyler, his verbal agility enabling him to defeat all-comers in a series of rap battles.

Rabbi Darkside is an old school MC raised on Golden Age - ie mid-'80s - rap, his music featuring his intelligent, rapid flow over judiciously chosen samples. His delivery has shades of Eminem, but there is no spite in what he says: for Darkside, rap is educational, and he sees himself as a "cultural ambassador".

"Working with young people keeps you real," says the Brooklyn MC. "To kids, rappers are the biggest stars in the world, and that's inspiring."

Inspired in a different way is Action Bronson, a massive, and massively tattooed, red-bearded Jew and former chef from Queens via Albania who swapped food preparation for the microphone. A sort of white, Jewish Notorious B.I.G., he named himself after Charles Bronson, tough guy star of the Death Wish movies. Big (literally) in the hip hop underground, he has earned a reputation for his linguistic dexterity, even in London, where he recently played a gig witnessed by hardcore hip hop fans as well as more Orthodox types bearing peyot. Like all good Jewish boys, though, his primary passion is food.

"I would drop rap in a second to become an executive chef somewhere," admits the 27-year-old MC from Flushing, New York.

The two most high-profile new Jewish rappers around, Drake excepted, are America's Mac Miller and Asher Roth, both of whom purvey an accessible form of hip hop that has seen them tagged "Eminem lite". Actually, not just their hip hop but their Jewish credentials have been called into question: Miller was born Malcolm McCormick in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a Christian father and Jewish mother (although he was raised as a Jew, has happily discussed his barmitzvah and has the word chai - "life" - tattooed on his shoulder), while fellow Pennsylvania boy Roth's father is Jewish and his mother a Presbyterian.

In fact, Roth was surprised when he saw people's reactions at a Matisyahu gig, where he played support: they were disappointed to discover that he is not, halachically, Jewish.

"They were bummed out," he said. "But if I lost that fan, I don't think I wanted that fan to begin with."

Roth and Miller are not embarrassed about their middle-class roots, despite hip hoppers traditionally setting great store by their "for real" - ie poor and deprived - backgrounds.

But are these "Eminems with good parents", as they have been described, too privileged (Roth has a track called I Love College while Miller extols the virtues of the suburban life) to be considered proper rappers?

"I don't think your credibility should be based on where you were raised or whether you've been shot," says Master Tav. "My cultural experience is growing up in the suburbs of America, not the ghetto. But that doesn't mean it's less relevant than anyone else's."

Last updated: 2:54pm, May 10 2012